What was the name of the game we played as kids, where we’d crawl into our sleeping bags head-first and then, upright, attempt to topple one another? Caterpillar? (But those are horizontal.)
Whatever it was called, I could never manage more than a few seconds of it. The bag would close in on me; my arms were pinned; there wasn’t enough air. Except it didn’t and they weren’t and there was. Mind games. A mild case of claustrophobia.
In the years since, I’d nearly forgotten that breed of panic — irrational, animalistic. On the rare occasions that I’d been in some tight, underground quarters — a tour of the Catacombs, for example, low-level flashes of it would return. If anything, they were proof, I figured, that this phobia had gone the way of its childhood companions. There is nothing (living) in the closet. No talking worms will take up residence in my fingernails. I am not going to suffocate in a fuchsia L.L. Bean sleeping bag.
Early one morning a few weeks back, I laid pliant on a conveyor as two nurses prepped me for my MRI. I was at a children’s hospital — it was a fetal MRI — and there were sky blue panels above me with fat white clouds and a red airplane. The MRI machine itself had been decked out with pink and orange racing stripes. The decor was meant to comfort its young patients. To me, it said: a child can do this.
Children can and do and I could not. Within seconds of entering the white tube — just before Debussy’s Suite Bergamesque III began to play into the wrapped headphones — I full-on panicked. The night before, I’d read Annie Dillard’s essay on the ‘79 solar eclipse, and her words about the wrongness of it became a running chyron. “We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. We got the light wrong.In the sky was something that should not be there.”
The conveyor belt rolled me back out, like bread in a proofing drawer. I took deep breaths. Various straps and pieces of cloth were readjusted. I was rolled back in. This time, I lasted longer. Every third song was Suite Bergamesque. With great effort, I blocked the eclipse. I thought, instead, of Regina King, walking out onto the pool. My headphones slipped gradually, until I could no longer pretend to ignore the urgent blare of the MRI. I’d take the earlier proving analogy further — certainly, as far as the exam went, I was underproofed — but there were, of course, no ovens. The proof was the oven.
Anyways. As soon as I was safely out, I began to re-examine the whole episode with a scientific fascination. It’s not often that I am out of my head, and there I’d been, saturated with instinct. I’m feeling somewhat tender towards it now, as towards the dog who barks incessantly at incoming visitors. It’s only trying to help.
It’s the beginning of the final trimester of my third pregnancy. A slightly surreal thing, to be pregnant during lockdown. If I said nothing, who would know? What I hated most about my previous pregnancies was my inability to hide them. In New York, you are alone in a crowd unless you are walking a puppy, carrying a cute baby, or visibly pregnant, when you become complicit in your own spectacular. Here, I run and walk the trails alone, I swim solitary laps in a reserved lane, I see very few new faces. If the woman who runs the coffee and wine shop has reservations about making my lattes, she keeps them to herself.
We are on the cusp of the start of the brink of the plunge into something. Me, a new baby, a girl, with ratatat kicks and a steampunk heart. The country: freedom. The summer of hedonism, if only we remember how. I collect potential tinder with abandon.
The lawn, fresh with violets and slender clover and dandelions that Irving deposits, one by one, in his little red wagon.
The jurassic sponge cabbages that lord over the outer reaches of the nature preserve (nobody picks these).
The bleeding hearts suspended on a single branch, puffed out, worthy of the queen.
The flock of fledgling wild turkeys who squawk and bray at me from their perches in the marsh and hillsides, brash as docked sailors.
That’s not hedonism; that’s nature! But is anything so hedonistic as the giant sugar maple, dropping pedicels by the hundreds until the drive is a chartreuse carpet?
Am I to become profligate as if I were a sugar maple?
After weeks of false starts, rapid decay, I plant pansies and forget-me-nots and phlox and two young andromeda and they — well, flourish is too strong a word, but they live (don’t jinx it).
The crap apple trees are a fleecy pink; I clip a few branches and bring them inside, where they wilt nearly instantly. (Meanwhile the pussy willow branches I clipped in early April (March, even) are stalwart as ever).
In the mandible shadows of the pussywillow, I laze and watch Irvy tinker with the piano. The lamplight foregrounds his curls, the purse of his lips. The sounds are delicate enough to be pretty. I think—we could be 10 years hence (fifteen?).
Perry watches Peter Rabbit while I read the town paper. One is about survival way down the food chain. The other, lacrosse and an earth day installation made from trash. The door that leads out to the mudroom slams. “Don’t slam the door,” I chide, but Perry hasn’t moved from the couch.
“Do you think that was the basement monster?” I ask, hoping he’ll take the bait. But no, he knows it was only the door.
“Sometimes it blows shut, and sometimes it blows open,” he says.
A man interviewed outside Cup Foods, an hour after the Floyd verdict was announced, said, with tender triumph, that it was “some little tiny piece of justice.” The acanthus that sprouts from the sidewalk crack.
I read about the Penobscot, whose dying language was documented and then copyrighted by a dead man, who bequeathed it to the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia. For the Penobscot, certain stories can only be told to women, or in winter. The man who copyrighted the language didn’t care about the stories; it was the orthography he was after. Now no one, legally, can write them down.
On the other hand, the top of Mount Everest consists of marine limestone. A Penobscot woman — the tribe’s current language master — has written down the stories, some of them. Eventually you’ll be able to buy them, and tell them to their intended audiences, in the intended season. Another little tiny piece of justice.